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Eritrea: Press Freedom Updates

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Nov 15, 2009 (091115)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Eritrea ranks at the very bottom of Reporters without Borders index of press freedom for 2009, released in October (see, accompanied in the bottom five by North Korea, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Burma. In this report, Reporters without Borders lists 28 journalists as imprisoned in the country, more than any other country.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains two recent short reports from Reporters without Borders on the situation of journalists in Eritrea, and an account on by exiled journalist Tedros Abraham on his experiences as a journalist in Asmara and and his journey through Sudan to eventual refugee status in Norway.

This web-only Bulletin is one of a series of three released today. "Eritrea: Perilous Journeys," sent out by e-mail as well as posted on the web, is available at
"Eritrea: No Welcome in Italy" is available at

For a selection of recent books on Eritrea, see or

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Eritrea, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Journalist's choice as Sakharov Prize finalist hailed as victory for Eritrean prisoners of conscience

Reporters Sans Frontières / Reporters Without Borders

9 October 2009

[Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom throughout the world. For more information from RSF on Eritrea, including a regularly updated list of imprisoned journalists, see]:

Reporters Without Borders hails the European Parliament's decision to include Dawit Isaac, a journalist with Swedish and Eritrean dual citizenship who has been detained in Eritrea since September 2001, in the three finalists for the 2009 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The leaders of the parliament's political groups will choose the winner on 22 October.

"The Eritrean government has tried for years to ensure that nothing is said about the fate of its political prisoners," Reporters Without Borders said. "We thank the European United Left-Nordic Green Left and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe parliamentary groups for supporting this candidacy."

The press freedom organisation added: "This already represents a reward for Dawit Isaac and for the 30 or so other journalists who are rotting in Eritrean jails, without trial, because President Issaias Afeworki regards them as traitors."

The names of the three finalists, chosen from a list of 10 nominated by MEPs, were announced on 6 October by the parliament's foreign affairs and development commissions. The other two finalists are the Gaza-based Palestinian physician Izzeldin Abuelaish and the Russian human rights organisation Memorial. [The final prize was awarded to Memorial.]

"This candidacy is sending a signal to my country's regime," an Eritrean political refugee in Belgium told Reporters Without Borders. "Dawit Isaac has not sunk into the oblivion where the authorities want him to be." Isaac's brother, Esayas Isaac, told Reporters Without Borders he was very proud. "Eritrea needs talented and committed people like Dawit. We will not give up."

The Sweden-based "Free Dawit Isaac" association said it believed the nomination meant that Isaac's work was recognised in Europe and the rest of the world. Isaac, who founded and edited the weekly Setit, "was not just a journalist but also an acclaimed poet and playwright," the association's president, Leif Obrink, said. "Extracts from his plays were shown at the Goteborg book fair at the end of September. We are very grateful to the European Parliament for its efforts on behalf of Dawit."

After receiving treatment this year in an air force hospital in Asmara, Isaac was recently transferred to a provincial prison somewhere on the road from the capital to the port city of Masawa. Some sources say it is Embatkala prison, in Ghinda, 35 km northeast of Asmara, while other think he is being held in Dongolo, which is nearer to Masawa.

A European Parliament resolution on 7 January 2009 expressed deep concern about Isaac's continuing imprisonment and demanded his immediate release. But the European Union's attempts to obtain news about him have so far been ignored by the Eritrean authorities.

World's biggest prison for journalists eight years after September 2001 round-ups

Reporters Sans Frontières

17 September 2009

Eritrea now has at least 30 journalists and two media workers behind bars, which means that, exactly eight years after the round-ups of 18 September 2001 that put an end to free expression, it has achieved parity with China and Iran in terms of the number of journalists detained.

"Eritrea's prisoners of conscience are not just the victims of their jailers' cruelty," Reporters Without Borders said. "They are also, and even more so, the victims of indifference, tacit consent or overly timid efforts on the part of the country's international 'partners'. The Eritrean government has become a disgrace for Africa."

The press freedom organisation added: "Eight years after President Issaias Afeworki took his country on a tragic new course, it is time for him to change direction again and agree to release the imprisoned journalists or try them according to international norms. We count on the Swedish government, the current holder of the European Union presidency, to obtain concessions from Issaias, especially as one of the jailed journalists holds dual Swedish and Eritrean citizenship."

The three most important waves of arrests of the past eight years were in September 2001, November 2006 and February 2009. Thirty journalists and two media workers are currently detained, without trial.

Many are being held in metal containers or underground cells in Adi Abeito military prison (northwest of Asmara, on the road to Keren), in Eiraeiro prison (near the locality of Gahtelay, north of the road from Asmara to the port city of Massawa), in the Dahlak archipelago or one of the many other detention centres scattered around the country.

Reporters Without Borders has confirmed that four journalists arrested in September 2001 did not survive the appalling prison conditions.

The journalist with Swedish and Eritrean dual nationality is Dawit Isaac, the founder of the now banned weekly Setit, who was arrested on 23 September 2001. He was taken to the airforce hospital in Asmara for treatment earlier this year but he is now in Embatkala prison in Ghinda, 35 km northeast of the capital on the Massawa road.

The Eritrean authorities are keeping the state of his health a secret despite the international campaigns for his release. In response to a question about Dawit during an interview for Swedish journalist Donald Bostr”m at the end of May, President Issaias said that he did not care where Dawit was held, that he would never be tried and that the government would never negotiate his release with Sweden.

In a resolution on 7 January 2009, the European Parliament expressed deep concern about Dawit's continuing imprisonment and demanded his immediate release. But all the European Union attempts to obtain news about him have been ignored by the Eritrean authorities.

Reporters Without Borders has meanwhile learned that, during the past three weeks, dozens of civil servants working for the ministries of information, defence, foreign affairs and national security have been forced by the authorities to surrender their email passwords.

A Refugee At last

Tedros Abraham (Babu), Norway

11 September 2009

[Excerpts only. For full article see:]

I was born and grew up in Asmara, a city whose love affair never ends; it resonates in my heart in every second of my journey to seek refuge elsewhere. I have attended my primary, high school and University classes there. It is a place where I have seen my dream come true; unfortunately, it is also a place where I have seen my dream and the dream of its entire population shuttering.

I began contributing articles to the print media as young as 16 years of age. In 1998 when I was a high school student of Red Sea school (Ke'has), along with my colleagues, I co-founded a monthly newspaper called Hareg, with an aim to create a forum where students could discuss on a range of issues that concerns them. I worked as editor-in-chief of this newspaper until it was banned by the government in September 2001.

Meanwhile, as of May 2000, I began working as a reporter and columnist for the largest and the first private newspaper in the country, Setit. I contributed more than 60 articles, mostly news analysis regarding international political issues.

While I was working for Setit, along with my colleagues, I was striving hard to be the true voice of the people. However we were under constant threat and at times harassment from the government authorities. In August 2001, I was imprisoned by the government authorities for writing an investigative report regarding an unfair land allotment in the Anseba region. I was released after receiving a strict warning not to raise the issue in the media again.

After completing my high school study, I joined the University of Asmara in September 2002, where I graduated in journalism and mass communications with B.A degree in September 2007. Though I was in the University for four years, I never stopped exercising my journalistic carrier. In July 2003, I got the opportunity to work as a freelancer with the local language government newspaper Hadas Ertra. I became the first to start the international news analysis column that used to appear on bi-weekly basis. I was covering mostly regional issues and in my articles I endeavoured to remain as objective as I could. However, this was not without challenge, especially as of the beginning of 2005 when the government officially shifted its policies to anti-west and launched propaganda warfare, where I was soon to be found unfit for such a service; consequently, I got fired. Initially I was told that I was fired because of internal structural adjustment. But the truth was that I resisted their interference in my articles ...

When I lost my job in Hadas Ertra I had ample time to concentrate on the book that I was translating regarding modern world history and the rise of capitalism. I completed the book in June 2005 and submitted it to the Ministry of Information for censorship. Soon after, I found myself in a quagmire and underwent 35 days of imprisonment as the result. They wanted an explanation as what were my motives to translate the book. They even accused me that I was funded by the CIA. After taking the soft and hard copy of the book, they gave me a strong warning to never disclose any information about this particular incident, if not I would face grave consequences. Before my imprisonment I was also contributing articles to Eritrea profile and radio Dmsi Hafash; henceforth, I decided to quit.

After completing my University study in June 2006, I was assigned to do my compulsory University service with the PFDJ [People's Front for Democracy and Justice] website; in one way I was relieved to escape from working for the Ministry of Information, as my animosity with acting Minister Ali Abdu was at its peak then. I also felt saddened when I knew that I had to work for an organization, which is responsible for the Eritrean people's misery. It's ridiculous why they have chosen me to work for such an organization in the first place, which is traditionally run by the so-called amenable citizens. After all they knew my background, hence, it was a moment of a big personal and professional test for me, but I never made any compromise. ...

Even though I was fully aware of the grave consequence, I decided to remain as a professional journalist. In the one year and three months of my stay with the website. I have never been given a single chance from my boss to get out of Asmara, as he was so suspicious of me that I could leave the country in that pretext. However, I have never written a single article that lauds the government or the party itself; accidentally, I ended up being a sports reporter. In the meantime, I have never stopped from looking a way out of the hellish life with full of agony, to save myself before it was too late.

The escape

I made four failed attempts to cross the border, three times to Ethiopia and once to the Sudan. But I never gave up and succeeded with the fifth one. After six days of exhausting walk, I managed to get in to the Sudan on the 17th of November 2007 via Sawa military training camp, along two other colleagues. It was very risky and at times life threatening journey. Had it not been for one Sudanese nomad to rescue our life, we could all have vanished without trace in the deserts of eastern Sudan. The nomad named Mr. Hamid told us that just two week before our arrival, they had buried the body of two young Warsay Ykealo school students, who were presumably died as a result of water thirsty. Our fate could have not been different either, but we were so lucky to escape from that imminent danger.

Once we reached Sudan no one of us ever expected to face with such kind of agonising danger, but the nomad, who was in his mid eighties became our hero. He had to walk along with his two camels with us, in an effort to save our life. He was on foot while three of us turn by turn had to ride on the back of the camel. And it took us three days to reach a village called Girgir, 20km north from the city of Kessela. With all the difficulties of Arabic language I had at that time, but one of Mr. Hamids breathtaking expression was something that I hardly forget '' Esaias ke'ab'' meaning Esaias is a trouble maker. He also asked ''what have the Eritrean people done to deserve all these misery.'' Frankly I never expected those sympathetic words to come out from such an old nomad who happens to witness the tragedy and suffering of Eritreans first hand on a daily bases.

In the town of Girgir, we were very well received by the local people, who handed us later to a plain clothed Sudanese security personal. After making the mandatory search on our body they found nothing, except four hundred US dollars. But, luckily they just took one hundred and returned us back the remaining. They gave us peanuts (they call it fuul) a stable food in the Sudan, and we ate like crazy as our belly was empty enough to receive any thing. During our journey we were only eating some biscuits with muddy water. Later in the evening, they loaded us on a lorry's back, which was full of charcoal. Being on the top of the charcoal, every one of us had to make sure not to fall down before we reached to our dream town Kessela.

When we reached in the check point to enter Kessela, we met with two newly arrived asylum seekers and we were taken together to the security prison in the heart of the city. Kessela is a city where most of the Eritrean asylum seekers first end up before they get transferred to the nearby refugee camp. ...

In the detention centre, we were interrogated by the security officers, some of whom were Eritreans working with the government of Sudan, as they spoke fluent Tigrigna. They promised to transfer us to the Wedisherifay refugee camp on the next day for further assessment on our asylum case via the UNHCR. They asked us to give them money to bring us our dinner and the next morning they needed additional money for the diesel of the car that is going to take us to the refugee camp, and we gave them more money than they asked. ...'

However, they directly took us to the Immigration Department instead of the refugee camp. To our surprise, they began to guard us seriously just like criminals. ... They later told us that they were officials working with the UNHCR and they were going to help us to get asylum in the Sudan. To our relief, finally we reached Wedisherifay refugee camp, after half an hour of drive from Kessela towards the border with Eritrea. The location of the camp is awkward for many of the asylum seekers, as you can see Eritrean hills just across a couple of miles away. I remember most of the refugees were having a sleepless night, fearing from the possible abduction by Eritrean security agents, who are believed to frequently visit the camp.

Once we reached Wedisherifay, many of the refugees came to hug and shake us, who seem surprised with our coming. Everyone was congratulating us, as if we were Olympic gold medal winners. But, as I learnt later they had a good reason to do so, as we were the first group to arrive in the refugee camp for almost a month. At that time the government of Sudan was simply returning back hundreds of Eritrean asylum seekers to the ruthless dictatorial regime in Asmara. ...

Wedisherifay refugee camp was mainly established to house, those who fled from the fighting during Eritrea's war for independence (1961-1991). Most of the refugees refused UNHCR voluntary repatriation program during the late nineties to Eritrea, hence as durable solution to their problem the UNHCR was trying to resettle some of them in the western countries, but as most of the refugees already lived in protracted camp for three or four decades, they complain with the slow pace of progress in their process of relocation.

As of 2004 the UNHCR opened a new reception centre in the camp in order to assess the increasing number of new asylum seekers from Eritrea ...

We were given priority in the assessment of our case, as the immigration officials have given only three days to the UNHCR for our refugee status to be determined, if we were to fail to be genuine asylum seekers, we would have certainly been deported back then. ... They transferred us to our final destination camp kilo 26, which is located almost 100km inside Sudan. Even though security wise this camp is much safer than Wedisherifay, but none of the refugees stay for more than a couple of days here, they directly opt to go to Khartoum through the help of smugglers, who find this job a very lucrative business.

I along with my three colleagues met with a smuggler, who later assisted us to get into Khartoum illegally. Forty two people were placed in one lorry in a very overcrowded manner; we were so tightly squeezed into the lorry that, at times, we find ourselves on top of one another. We were totally covered with plastic in order to pretend the lorry was loaded with some materials....

Later I began to explore the taste of being in Khartoum, I felt as free as the bird for the first time in more than seven years. I loved to go from one street to another without any fear of a soldier asking me for a permit paper. I loved being myself, which I have never been in Eritrea. Above all I loved seeing most Sudanese reading morning newspaper everywhere, and I learnt that there are more than forty private newspapers in the country. For someone like me, who came from a country mini-north Korea in East Africa, I felt honoured to be among them to share their freedom. For this reason, I enthusiastically applied to work in Khartoum Monitor, a prominent English language newspaper. I worked as a freelancer for several months with a pen name, for I had to keep my profile very law. And later I ventured to publish my own newspaper in my local language called Shewit, which is the first of its kind to be published in the Sudan. Later, as it gained popularity among the urban refugees, I began to face a number of threats from Eritrean government agents. Ultimately I decided to terminate it, as I didn't had any security guarantee from the government of Sudan. And in April 2009, I received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award for human rights defenders in recognition of my contributions for the freedom of speech and the suffering I went through.

Khartoum is booming with massive foreign investment, the economic activity is incredible for someone who came from a capital city run by a failed government. And I marvelled at its size of nine million people, which is twice the number of the whole population of my country with 4 million.

Sudan is a transit place for most of Eritrean refugees, for further illegal migration to Libya or Egypt. I was tempted to go to Libya or Egypt but refrained later fearing potential deportation, as both countries used to extradite Eritrean asylum seekers to the dictatorial regime in Asmara. Hence, I decided to ask protection in the Sudan so as the UNHCR to assist me in resettling to any third country as the only viable option. However, I found this option very difficult and unsustainable as I had to undergo a number of complicated procedures just to secure a convention refugee status. The process was at times frustrating, as it takes extremely long time for the UN to intervene for possible solutions. Finally I have learnt how to be patient even though it was psychologically very hurting, as I was constantly living in fear of possible abduction.

Now I am in Norway, enjoying freedom that I badly missed at home over the past nine years, and it is a place, where I hardly imagined finding myself as a refugee, but I am here starting a new life with dignity that I barely get in my country. Even though I am far away from home, the imprisonment of my colleagues, the continuous cycle of suffering of our people inside and in the refugee camps is constantly resonating in my mind, to break my absolute ecstasy, but, my pen is still my weapon.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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